President Trump doesn’t think highly of most international leaders, but he made sure to express his support for one in particular: Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil.
“He is working very hard on the Amazon fires, and in all respects doing a great job for the people of Brazil,” Trump tweeted on Tuesday. “He and his country have the full and complete support of the USA!”
Which is interesting, since much of the world has been criticizing Bolsonaro’s handling of the Amazon fires.
I’m going to suggest that this is the very reason Trump praised Bolsonaro. If the world is criticizing Bolsonaro for failing to address a problem with extremely pressing global implications, he must be doing something right — that is, by the Trumpian code of global ethics.
Trump, to be sure, praised Bolsonaro after he reversed course under mounting international pressure and, after days of dismissing concerns, mobilized military forces. But Trump’s praise for Bolsonaro also comes after he rejected the Amazon aid offered by the Group of Seven. Trump is standing by Bolsonaro amid his rebuffing of international criticism.
This also comes after Trump skipped the G-7 meeting on climate change and the Amazon. In Bolsonaro, Trump sees a right-wing nationalist fellow traveler, an ally in defying the globalists who preposterously think nations should collaborate — and even tailor their own behavior — to address issues with critical long-term implications for the planet and the future of humanity.
After all, both Bolsonaro and Trump have rebuffed such international criticism by invoking national sovereignty. Bolsonaro accused countries trying to donate money to fight the fires of trying to “interfere with our sovereignty.”
Similarly, when Trump pulled out of the international Paris climate pact, infuriating our allies, he claimed that it represented a “reassertion of America’s sovereignty.”
In doing this, Trump — who has also done everything possible to roll back former president Barack Obama’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — has differed from conventional GOP rationales for opposing government efforts to combat climate change, which are rooted in hostility toward regulation of business.
Trump is more operating in the Bolsonaro vein, hewing to a populist nationalism that treats international agreements and/or cooperation in service of the long-term global common good as unacceptable infringements on the nation’s control over its own affairs.
Nationalists such as Trump and Bolsonaro often claim that in practice, such arrangements mean the “globalists” or the “faraway unelected bureaucrats” are usurping control from “the people.” But this fungible category of “the people” often doesn’t refer to the actual citizenry but to the leader’s supporters, as we are seeing with Trump’s racial-nationalist demand that nonwhite U.S.-born lawmakers who represent Democratic areas leave the country.
This worldview dictates that the “nation” should profit off its natural reserves to the greatest extent possible, regardless of the international consequences. And never mind who in the nation is actually doing the profiting: In the United States, coal magnates are, while miners certainly aren’t. Similarly, environmentalists blame Bolsonaro’s hostility to scientific warnings and his pullbacks on curbs on commercial pillaging for unleashing deforestation and today’s wildfires.
Yet if there is anything that should challenge such assertions of blanket national sovereignty, it’s the Amazon fires. As Franklin Foer writes:
It is commonplace to describe the Amazon as the “world’s lungs.” Embedded in the metaphor is the sense that inherited ideas about the sovereignty of states no longer hold in the face of climate change. If the smoke clouds drifted only so far as the skies of São Paulo, other nations might be able to shrug off the problem as belonging to someone else. But one person shouldn’t have the power to set policies that doom the rest of humanity’s shot at mitigating rising temperatures.
As Foer notes, our international institutions, battered by nationalist movements, are not up to the task of addressing the problem. But if they were, Foer says, they might grapple with the fact that “the battle against climate change demands not only new international cooperation but, perhaps, the weakening of traditional concepts of the nation-state.”
There is of course a strong liberal case for the primacy of national sovereignty (within limits) and the nation-state as the guarantor of self-rule and political self-determination, and the enabler of vast political mobilization and collective action.
But as Quinta Jurecic points out, picking up on Foer’s theme, climate change and the Amazon catastrophe challenge the concept of national sovereignty: "The burning Amazon affects not just Brazil but the whole world.” Jurecic notes of Trump and Bolsonaro:
One of the puzzles of the current age is how a cadre of nationalist leaders are both struggling with the reality of crises spanning national boundaries and doing their best to double down on the idea of borders in the first place.
This is a sly formulation, because for Trump and Bolsonaro, this isn’t a puzzle at all. National sovereignty and doubling down on “the idea of borders” are the excuse for reneging on our responsibilities when it comes to “crises spanning national boundaries.” This is the case on immigration, too, where Trump adviser Stephen Miller has nonsensically and dishonestly evoked “sovereignty” to justify abandoning our humanitarian commitments to desperate migrants — whose flows are also a border-transcending problem.
There are of course legitimate grievances among those who have unfairly borne the brunt of our international arrangements. But for nationalists in the Trump-Bolsonaro mold, the goal isn’t to find a good-faith balance between national sovereignty and international engagement toward solving global problems.
Rather, the evocations of sovereignty create the fake justification for not doing our part to help address global problems. Such evocations are really an excuse to behave badly toward the world, regardless of the consequences, now and in the future.